Acclaimed chef Mindy Segal has felt at home in the kitchen since her childhood. As she explained when I interviewed her on a recent March day, Segal grew up during a time when nouvelle cuisine—a culinary movement that stressed freshness, lightness, and natural flavors—was gaining popularity in American kitchens.

This new push for fresh ingredients filled Segal with wonder, and she vividly remembers her amazement as she accompanied her mother to farmers’ markets and grocery stores. She was mesmerized by the abundance of farm-fresh vegetables and herbs and by the sight of wholesome, simple foods like roasted chicken and fresh pasta. She became so interested in cooking that she started helping her mother in the kitchen all the time.

Segal’s passion for cooking never faded, and she was determined to pursue it. After high school, she began attending college but quickly realized that culinary school was calling her name. On a whim one afternoon, she hopped on a bus towards her home in Chicago and announced to her parents that she was transferring to culinary school. Once enrolled in culinary school, Segal fell in love with and specialized in pastry. She hasn’t looked back since.

After graduating from culinary school, Segal went on to work in some of Chicago’s most renowned fine-dining restaurants, including Ambria, Charlie Trotter’s, Marché, and MK. Segal earned “a good pedigree” working in these intense, challenging kitchens. She also learned a great deal about the restaurant industry, particularly at MK, where chef Michael Fornick pushed Segal to become a better businesswoman.

By the early 2000s, after years of working in various restaurant kitchens, Segal was ready to open her own place. She envisioned opening a dessert-focused, fine-dining restaurant in a storefront in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago. After seeking advice and inspiration from the owners of Finale, a dessert-centered restaurant in Boston, Segal finally launched HotChocolate in 2005.

HotChocolate, so named to evoke the warm, inviting feelings associated with melted chocolate, offers an evolving array of “contemporary sweet and savory food” featuring local ingredients. The restaurant serves brunch, lunch, dinner, dessert, and, of course, plenty of hot chocolate. In fact, Segal sells more in dollars and volume of hot chocolate than anything else.

Segal prides herself on delivering straightforward food with “full-on” flavor and texture. She aims to take ordinary, familiar foods—hamburgers, mac ’n cheese, bagels, chocolate chip cookies, etc.—and make them extraordinary by focusing on technique and ingredients. Her creations are “innovative yet rooted in Midwestern wholesomeness and comfort.” She argues, “I’m not interested in creating the next ‘cronut,’ just in making a really great donut.”

This approach, along with her sense of fearlessness, determination, and confidence, has served Segal well over the years. In 2012, she was awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef,” and her restaurant has thrived in the twelve years since its debut. Segal feels “very lucky and very blessed” to have found such great culinary success on her own terms, by staying true to herself.

Yet Segal also owes much of HotChocolate’s success to its staff members, who helped her develop her concept and navigate the challenges of managing a business. Segal admits that “owning a restaurant is like a Broadway production—you open the curtain, and you never know what’s going to happen. You learn a lot about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses and hopefully make a lot of bucks in the middle.”

For a long time, Segal toyed with the idea of expanding her pastry business and opening a bakery. In 2016, she came upon the opportunity to open a stall in Revival Food Hall in the Loop neighborhood of Chicago. There, her HotChocolate Bakery sells savory and sweet food, such as bagels and slab-deserts, for on-the-go dining.

It also offers a legendary hot chocolate service throughout the fall and winter months. This small-scale bakery project has been a valuable learning experience for Segal, who enjoys taking risks and trying out new ideas.

One of her recent, most groundbreaking projects is Mindy’s Edibles, a line of cannabis-infused sweets designed for those suffering from chronic conditions. Segal has long been a strong believer in marijuana’s medicinal qualities and an advocate for its legalization.

After Illinois legalized medicinal marijuana in 2014, several companies approached Segal to discuss plans for developing a line of edibles. Segal’s self-proclaimed “I don’t give a f**k” attitude and incredible pastry skills rendered her the perfect chef to take on this project.

Currently, she works with Cresco Labs, Illinois’ largest cannabis cultivator. Segal develops treats, make decisions about flavors and strains of marijuana, and oversees a team of skilled chefs. She loves the challenging, ever-evolving nature of this project, which is essentially an extension of what she does in her restaurant—create desserts that bring people joy. Segal is proud to have “taken a product that most people are afraid of and destigmatized it.”

In the midst of all of these culinary endeavors, Segal also recently published her first cookbook, “Cookie Love,” which she co-wrote with Kate Leahy. The book is filled with mouthwatering cookie recipes for the home cook, anecdotes about these cookies, and explanations of the unique techniques that Segal has developed throughout her career. She is extremely proud of this book, which she considers to be her “legacy.”

A Woman in Food

Segal has “walked a lot of miles” as a woman in the food industry. Along the way, she has constantly made up her own rules and allowed her outspoken, opinionated personality to shine. As a result, Segal has never experienced the food industry as a “boys’ club.”

In fact, as she laughingly declared, “I probably have a bigger penis than most of the men in this industry.” To Segal, being a woman in the kitchen is no different than being a man, for “there are so many talented female chefs” in the food industry.

At the end of the day, hard work is the quality that matters most in the kitchen. Segal firmly believes that, if female chefs like her “dive in and do [their] work,” they can earn respect and achieve their culinary ambitions just as their male counterparts do. Nevertheless, Segal admits, the food industry is “a hard industry.” Her one word of encouragement to those aspiring to enter the restaurant world? Godspeed.

Mindy Segal is one of the many amazing and inspiring women coming to speak at Northwestern University's Sugar and Spice Summit on Saturday, April 1. Buy your tickets here before they sell out!